When I heard the news that Sophie’s (and sister bar Mona’s) was going up for sale, I began revisiting the East Village bar where I used to hang out in younger days. On a quiet afternoon this week I had the good fortune to talk with owner Bob Corton. Personable and generous, he told me about the origins of Sophie’s — and his hopes for its future.
In the 1980s, Bob worked for bar owner Sophie Polny, a tough old lady who ran a pub on Avenue A. Bob became manager when Sophie moved her bar (known only as the Polny Restaurant Corp.) to its current location on 5th between A & B, into a space occupied by a joint called the Chic Choc, named for partners Virginia Chicarelli and someone called Chocolate. “Chic Choc” is still written on the doorstep of Sophie’s.
Sophie Polny didn’t like to spend money. Bob recalls, “She only got a jukebox because it came free with the pool table. But she mostly used it for sitting on. The jukebox was her perch.” When she moved to 5th Street, rather than buy new, she brought her old wooden bar with her. It’s still there today, with its stained-glass cabinet doors and cottage-roof motif, a popular style dating back to (from my best guess) the early 20th century.
The bar used to open at 10:00 in the morning for the old Ukrainian men who liked to sit all day over beer and shots of vodka. Said Bob, “If I showed up to open at 10:01, there’d be 8 guys waiting out front to get in and they’d hand me a bag of shit for being late.”
He remembers when the East Village had just a handful of tight-knit bars, mostly Ukrainian. “It was a community,” he said, “When one bar couldn’t pay the rent, they’d have rent parties. The word would go out and everyone went to drink there at the beginning of the month to make sure the bar could make it.”
Bob acquired Polny's bar in 1986. He never renovated and didn't officially name the place. “Everyone just called it Sophie’s, so I kept the name. It seemed lucky.” (Mona’s, bought in 1989, was named after his cat.)
Sophie’s survived tough times in the East Village — when few dared to venture east of Avenue A, when the next-door bistro was a drug bodega (closed after a killing there), and Bob had to worry about squatters using his restrooms to steal not only toilet paper, but also faucets and other fixtures.
Bob doesn’t know what will happen to Sophie’s next. He hasn't yet communicated with any buyers and there is some talk from regulars about buying the place collectively and turning it into a community bar.
He would stay if he could and he has no interest in cashing in on the East Village's new wealth, but health problems keep him from doing the hard work that has to be done. He told me, “Sophie’s is my life. As much as I bitch and moan about it, it’s an extension of me and I hate to give it up.”